Interesting that the definition carries with it the sense of a claim, something to be paid, as if contentment were owed to us. It certainly is something sought after, and once found, difficult to hold on to! Disconcerting circumstances, disappointed expectations, and frustrated desires all seem to somehow steal our joy at the most inopportune times, evaporating contentment like mist in the dry heat of the desert. Is it us, or the capricious nature of life in this world that seems to conspire against our claim upon happiness and satisfaction? Actually, it is us.
Contentment is both an emotion and a choice. It is both biological and psychological. It is a neurological response to stimuli in the limbic region of our brain which we experience as one of our most fundamental emotions,2 and at the same time, a volitional choice we make to be content, or not, in spite of circumstances.3 This is more than a little confusing for me since I grew up learning from experience that happiness and satisfaction, and therefore contentment, were a result, not a choice. Boy was I wrong! It is actually the other way around; psychologically contentment is also a choice and not a result. Here is why this is true.
Emotions, in the sense of mental health, are not just tied to our psychology, but to our biology as well.4 It is a two-way street with body impacting mind and mind impacting body. This is why experts tell us a healthy brain means healthy body and mind. At the same time, we can make decisions that enable us to regulate our emotions. Take anger, for example. It is one of the strongest fundamental emotions we can experience. Yet anger is also a feeling we can choose to manage. There is a well-developed professional specialty, Anger Management, built around this concept of exercising volitional choice in order to manage our anger.5 In fact, we can manage all of our emotions in a manner that does not allow them to manage us.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be free with our emotions. That is not healthy, either. Emotions are part of who we are and fill a very important role in our lives. They help us understand non-verbal communication. No, really! Think about the last time someone was glad to see you, or smiled at you, or frowned at you, or rolled their eyes at something you said. Lots of communication in those looks without a word being spoken, right? If we didn’t have emotions, we would not pick up on those social cues.
Emotions also are part of our early warning system that triggers our fight or flight response. Sometimes that sense of caution regarding our conduct or what we are about to say is also part of our emotional early warning system. In fact, our emotions more often keep us out of trouble then get us into trouble. Here is a bigger picture of the biology/psychology integration and how it applies to contentment.6
Remember the comment about healthy brain means healthy mind and body? Healthy body involves proper nutrition, sufficient exercise, and the right amount of sleep.7 This is the biological side of the equation. The biological impact of not taking care of ourselves physically can include depression, anxiety, stress disorders, gastro-intestinal problems, diabetes, early onset of dementia and a whole host of other unpleasant medical conditions. You can imagine how easily any of these conditions can upset our sense of contentment!
Meaningful relationships, purposeful work, and curiosity that leads to learning new things are the psychological side of healthy contentment. It is easier to understand how relationships and work can lead to happiness and satisfaction. Learning new things stimulates the replacement and repair of neural pathways damaged by stress or illness.8 The biological side of that coin is that sleep, especially the deep cycle of uninterrupted sleep, does the same thing.9 So, let’s dig a little deeper into how we can make choices when our emotions are screaming at us. Let’s go sailing.
Imagine the wind comes up and pushes straight into the sail from the side as pictured. The “wind” is a metaphor for the disconcerting circumstances, disappointed expectations, and frustrated desires that steal away our contentment mentioned in the beginning of this article. Since water does not compress or move aside easily, and the skeg under the boat makes it difficult for the boat to slide sideways across the water, the boat just leans over under the pressure, sort of like us. When the pressure is too great, the law of physics shifts the direction of the force ninety degrees away toward the front of the boat, and the boat begins to move. If you happen to be standing at the back of the boat, you can grab the rudder and control the direction the boat moves.The large fin sticking down under the sailboat is called a skeg. Other than the sail, it is the most important thing about a sailboat. The little fin sticking down at the rear of the sailboat is the rudder. The action of the sail and the rudder together steer the sailboat.
Psychologically, we lean under the pressure of life and circumstances as well. In response to pressure, our emotions engage and often pull us in the wrong direction. But we can make a choice in the direction we move, redirecting the emotional energy we are experiencing like a rudder. Regulating our emotions is a lot like sailing. Under pressure we are moved in a direction which we can control if we choose to. This is the part many people are not aware they have control over. Having emotions is natural and healthy. To ignore our emotions won’t help, just like ignoring the wind won’t help the sailor get past the law of physics.
Emotions are like indicators on the dashboard of your sailboat. They signal something about what is going on below deck that may or may not need attention. A great way to engage your emotions when they surprise you is to ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” All behavior has purpose, including our feelings. Understanding why we feel the way we do is a first step in learning to regulate our emotions without trying to control them. As a young man learning to sail, my instructor would often say, “Sail your boat, don’t let your boat sail you.”
So, you are in good shape physically; you can embrace your emotional self with maturity most of the time (nobody is perfect); you are engaged in meaningful relationships; and enjoy your work. Everything is as it should be, and you are happy and satisfied. What do you need to look out for that can upset your sense of contentment? Prolonged uncertainty? Uncertainty brings with it concern, worry, and fear which creates a sense of discontent. What do you do now?
Uncertainty is unavoidable in life. However, too much uncertainty can become overwhelming. Here are some choices… decisions… you can make:
Acknowledge, don’t avoid. Be self-aware and acknowledge your discomfort with uncertainty. Identify the source and focus on what are facts, not speculation. Release what is entirely out of your control. Be discerning and use common sense to keep worry to a minimum.
Choose to respond, not to react. Your impulse will be to take action. Give yourself a little recess to take a deep breath and think it through. Confident action is always better than instant reaction to your situation.
Reach out, don’t hold back. Tolerating uncertainty is a prolonged stressor. Give a trusted friend a call, someone you can share your thoughts and feelings with who will not be critical or judgmental. Another way to reach out is to journal your thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts have a way of straightening themselves out when they pass through our fingertips onto our journal.
I am usually pretty even keeled (a sailing metaphor!) and content in spite of circumstances, but not always. Here are my contentment confessions: I am a disabled veteran and not always happy or satisfied with that condition. By education, training, and temperament, I can be a perfectionist at times which can get in the way of my acceptance of circumstances and people. By profession I am a healer and occasionally need reminding that I cannot help everyone who comes to me for help. You see, like most people, it is ultimately my limitations that become the focus of my discontent.
Living with, and accepting our limitations is key to contentment. Contentment is a state, not a trait, and experiencing contentment is a process, not an event. Commitment to the process of repeatedly making good decisions can keep us in a state of contentment longer and diminish the impact of uncertainty in our lives. As often as you can, choose to be content. Your feelings will eventually follow that lead.
Amthor, F. (2014). Neurobiology for Dummies, 6.131-132, 14.279, Wiley.
Carter, L. and Minirth, F. and Meier, P. (2013). Happiness is a Choice. Baker Books
PTSD and the Neurology of Learning: How Stress Robs Us of Understanding, Jernigan; Combat Stress Magazine, Spring 2021
Carter, L. and Minirth, F. (1995). The Anger Workbook, Thomas Nelson
Jernigan, J. (2021, Spring). PTSD and the Neurology of Learning: How Stress Robs Us of Understanding. Combat Stress Magazine. https://www.stress.org/combat-stress-magazine-spring-2021
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Jernigan, PhD, BCPPC, FAIS is a board-certified mental health professional known for influencing change in people and organizations by capitalizing on growth and change through leadership selection and development. Jeff currently serves Stanton Chase Pacific as the regional Life-Science and Healthcare Practice Leader for retained executive search and is the national subject matter expert for psychometric and psychological client support services.
A lifetime focus on humanitarian service is reflected in Jeff’s role as the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder, with his wife Nancy, for the Hidden Value Group, an organization bringing healing, health, and hope to the world in the wake of mass disaster and violence through healthcare, education, and leadership development. They have completed more than 300 projects in 25 countries over the last 27 years. Jeff currently serves as a Subject Matter Expert, Master Teacher, Research Mentor, or Fellow in the following professional organizations: American Association of Suicidology, National Association for Addiction Professionals, The American Institute of Stress, International Association for Continuing Education and Training, American College of Healthcare Executives and the Wellness Council of America.
The dictionary defines “content” as being in a state of peaceful happiness. The AIS magazine is called Contentment because we want all of our guests and members to find contentment in their lives by learning about stress management and finding what works best for each them. Stress is unavoidable, and comes in many shapes and sizes that makes being in a state of peaceful happiness seem like a very lofty goal. But happiness is easy to find once you are able to find ways to manage your stress and keep a healthy perspective when going though difficult times in life. You will always have stress, but stress does not always have you!
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